Sperrazza: LISA (An Essay)
Sperrazza has been a television producer for a CNN magazine in
Washington, D.C. She is particularly interested in writing about
class issues, as reflected in this essay. Wise Women's Web is
happy to encourage her writing.
I saw Lisa at the family picnic, she was wearing a purple tee
shirt, with dirt smeared down the front of it, smoking a cigarette
and loudly complaining about getting evicted from her apartment.
Over six feet tall, weighing over 200 pounds, Lisa is hard to
miss in any setting.
never enjoy seeing Lisa, at the family picnic, or anywhere else,
for that matter. Other members of my extended family seem to share
this sentiment as well. Like me, they make a point of saying hello
to her, and then stage a quick retreat away. The average contact
with Lisa and her family, I would estimate, is under one minute.
I notice that no one sits down to picnic at their table, with
its sorry-looking bags of chips, cans of generic soda and cheapo
supermarket cookies. I am no exception. I smile, say hello, move
on. Like everyone else, it's probably the superficial things,
that initially drive me away...the dirty clothes, the body odor,
the smeary faces and sticky hands of the kids, the sullen cigarette-smoking
eat a hamburger and talk to my great aunt Theresa and my cousin
Kathy for awhile. Then, when I've run out of the kind of small
talk you make with people you see once a year, I find a spot away
from all the picnic action, and just sit down at an empty picnic
table. Now at a comfortable distance, I am drawn to watching Lisa.
I listen and realize she is still talking about the same thing
she was talking about, when I arrived an hour ago.
say they are gonna call the Board of Health on me because don't
clean up right well let 'um it was a dump anyway way before I
got there and I told welfare its just the cats and what do they
think I'm supposed to do with all of them anyways and then I told
them Roger would try and do something but if they think they can
kick me out well they can just try and see and ..." Lisa
says to my cousin Tommy, her squirming and uncomfortable listener.
sit in awe for a moment, at the torrents of words flooding out
of her, wondering how she can keep breathing, talking that fast
and that loud. Shunned as she is, she's not letting herself be
s. I am almost envious, in that peculiar way I get occasionally,
of people, usually crazy or merely oblivious, who say anything
they want, to anybody, because they feel like they have nothing
e. It would be nice just not to give so much of a damn. I don't
know if Lisa doesn't give a damn, is really oblivious or what.
In fact, I haven't known what she feels for a long time. But I
like to think that not shutting up is her own arrived at solution,
that it is her way of emerging from the gulag of silence she was
surrounded by, so many years ago.
is actually my aunt, my mother's half sister. Born some twenty
years after my mother, Lisa was someone I, rather than my mother,
grew up with. Thirty nine years old this year, she has been on
welfare her entire adult life. She came to this picnic with her
three children, Michelle, thirteen years old, Mary, probably around
10 years old, her youngest son David, not yet a year old, along
with Roger, her husband, an unemployed auto body repairman, with
scraggly crosses tattooed up and down his arms.
of the children has a different father-- Michelle's father was
Alphonso, whose only gift to his daughter was his dark Puerto
Rican looks. Mary's father was a homeless alcoholic, who disappeared
while Lisa was pregnant. Roger is the father of her youngest child,
and unlike the other men in her life, he seems to be sticking
a flash of ironic insight, I realize that no matter how you slice
it, Lisa has succeeded in getting herself a family, something
I certainly have not done, childless at forty four. But in my
own private universe, revolving as it does around the two big
suns of freedom and achievement, Lisa's life is the gigantic black
hole I always feared would suck me in.
failure to succeed, her backwards slide from a child who grew
up working class like I did, to a mother on welfare, is the disaster
I worked very hard to prevent at all costs. Simply put, I know
now and I knew then that I could not survive a life in the small
New England city I am from, with its workaday banality, its hidden
brutality, its torturous isolation. I would have drowned in that
peculiar misery of turning out to be nothing like the person I
wanted to be and having to go through the motions of a life anyway.
This is my nightmare, it is not Lisa's. But looking at her now,
I can't really believe that Lisa would have chosen the life she
has now. Her survival seems like a consolation prize at best.
remember Lisa as a happy little girl, her brown hair in two shiny
pigtails, always tall for her age. When I was ten years old, we
used to play in a garden my grandmother had created out of a strip
of land behind their three-family house on Maple Street. There
was a big garden of gladiolas, with a border of painted white
stones, a sliver of green lawn, a set of swings and some tinkling
glass wind chimes from Woolworth's, with Chinese-looking characters
on them, hanging from the roof of the back stoop. We used to spend
all afternoon making elaborately decorated mud cakes. Lisa was
very good at this and could do it for hours with an air of happy
contentment. I cannot connect that person with the disheveled,
cranky women before me. When I try to reconcile the two images,
I see a broken umbilical cord-- as if the young-potential-Lisa-person
I see in memory, still in the womb of childhood, died.
Lisa was nine years old, she was brutally beaten and raped by
an neighbor boy named Andy, who lived upstairs from her, in the
three-family on Maple Street . Sixteen years old, he said was
mad at her because she had hit him with a stick the previous summer.
She laid in a coma for several weeks. During that time, which
seemed to last forever, I remember obsessively phoning the hospital
over and over again, to check to see f she was still on the what
used to called the critical list. I was scared to death she would
die. The gap that exists between us now hadn't opened up yet;
I felt like it could have happened to me. I had even played with
Andy while visiting at my grandmother's house.
a bad head injury, Lisa tenaciously clung to life. She was in
the hospital a long time and when she got out, the white of one
of her eyes was mostly red, and she had a funny patch of skin
on her forehead, where the surgeons had had to graft skin to cover
her head wound. Nobody talked about what happened.
is the terrible thing my family did to Lisa and my grandmother.
They said nothing. The terrible thing happened and it was just
so terrible that no one wanted to talk about it, and no one wanted
them around, to be reminded. It is that special silence reserved
for the truly damned, as if my family thought God must have marked
and punished Lisa some how, or how else could something like this
happen? And wouldn't it be best to stand aside, when something
so utterly incomprehensible happens, because who knows the limits
of the tentacles of such flippant evil?
think about Lisa, sometimes, in my life as a journalist, whenever
I read articles or watch TV news pieces on "transitioning
women on welfare into jobs". In so many ways, Lisa fits the
stereotype of a welfare mother: She dropped out of high school;
she has three children with three different fathers, she lives
from check to check in a dumpy apartment. I suppose you could
make a case for her getting a job, instead of collecting a welfare
check. The idea put forth, in policy making circles, is that anyone
can be rehabilitated, and I'm certain you could find worse cases
than Lisa's. But when I consider the vastness of the damage done
to her, I despair. I look at her and have the sensation that,
in some fundamental way, her life was stolen from her, either
by the rape and beating, or by the silence surrounding it.
what she always referred to as "the accident", my grandmother
gave up playing piano. My mother said it was because she had been
playing the piano that day that Lisa disappeared from the backyard.
She could never really forgive herself --as if somehow her love
of playing piano, the thing she loved doing more than anything
else, had caused the terrible thing to the happen to the daughter
she loved. When Lisa was a teenager, my grandmother became over-protective,
almost never letting her go out. My grandmother started buying
her anything she wanted to eat, as a reward for staying home.
I remember a phase when Lisa would drink a quart of yellow buttermilk
almost every day, along with a plate of cookies. She began to
put on a lot of weight. When Lisa was sixteen, she dropped out
of school. Then, when Lisa was nineteen, my grandmother made one
of her legendary about faces and pushed Lisa out of the house,
all but forcing her to marry Alphonso, learning disabled and barely
able to speak English. I think she saw Lisa as damaged goods:
"Let her at least have somebody" was the way my grandmother
presented the marriage to the family.
remember that, by then, I knew the whole story of what had happened
to Lisa, which my mother had gradually revised as I got older.
The original version presented to me when I was ten, was that
Lisa had gotten hit by a car. When I was twelve, my mother disclosed
the fact that Andy, the upstairs neighbor, had actually been trying
to kill her. When I was either fifteen or sixteen, I finally learned
about the rape and the true horror of what had happened, the horrible
assault and the silence surrounding it, set in.
mother disapproved of Lisa's marriage. I think it brought out
the worst in my mother : her latent racism, because Alphonso was
Puerto Rican, and the same terror I came to have, that through
her sister, she too would slip, would go backwards into the darkness
on the other side of the class divide. I began to lose contact
with Lisa after that. While I was going to college, she started
what turned out to be a short married life with Alphonso. I remember
hearing she was
at least for awhile, perhaps because she had finally left my grandmother's
house. I didn't make many trips home in those years; I was too
busy trying to separate myself from the place and the people I
had grown up with. It was the 1970s and I was sure what used to
be called the counterculture held some better way of life for
me. It didn't, but this forsaking of my working class roots would
be definitive; I would never really return to the family and the
neighborhood I was from.
years down the road, at the annual family picnic, the yearly foray
I make back into my past, I look around at the faces of my extended
family. Some of us have done very well - we now sport lawyers,
professors, even one bona fide millionaire. I am no stranger to
success myself, and, more of the time that not, I frankly enjoy
the big city life I have made for myself. According to the rules,
I have played the game well, I have won.
big in the bright summer light of the family picnic, Lisa stands
like some shadowy monument, reminding me of the things that happen
in life that cannot be changed. I wonder, even with my best Herculean
effort, if her cards had been dealt to me, how well would I have
done? I think back to that little girl making mud pies I knew,
as I look into the faces of Lisa's two young daughters who have
come over to my picnic table to say hello.
© 1999 by Lisa Sperrazza. All rights reserved.